The Mystery of the Screaming Partner

As an executive coach, I work with many people who are causing problems in the workplace. They are not getting along well with others, so they are sent to work with me to try to fix the problem.

screaming womanWhen people in high places have personal problems that stir up issues in the workplace, the effect can reverberate. I have often found that the source of the problem is something deeply personal that gets imported and played out in the work setting.

A number of years ago I worked with a partner sent to me by her law firm. She was valuable to the firm because she was the head of a practice area that the firm was trying to expand, and she had a large number of loyal clients. The firm wanted to keep her on board as a partner, but associates and staff who worked with her complained that she had a dysfunctional management style. She was disorganized, and often gave associates work to do at the last minute on Fridays, which meant that they could not get to the Cubs game or the wedding that they had planned. She had a “hair on fire” culture in her practice group, and she screamed at her associates and was annoyed and irritable with them.

Associates complained that she gave them negative, unfair reviews which other partners did not. Many associates asked not to work with her or asked to be assigned to a different practice group. When this partner threw a book at an associate, narrowly missing him, it was the last straw. The human resources/professional development team sent her to work with me.

Why does someone behave this way? Whenever I begin working with anyone in executive coaching, I begin with a mystery. What is going on that prompted this behavior? What are the contributing factors? What is this person thinking? Why is this happening now?

When I first met with this partner she was angry and annoyed about being sent to work with me on her “remedial people skills.” She was thinking about quitting and taking her clients her to another firm. To her credit, she was willing to be open to the coaching process. I was able to create a relationship with her by drawing her out, hearing about her issues and concerns, and affirming her.

I learned that this partner lived to work. She never married and never had children. Her clients were incredibly important to her and she was devoted to them. Work gave her a sense of purpose and self-worth. Working on the weekends and late at night actually helped her to fill her life.

Her associates, typically Millennials, had a different perspective. They wanted to work hard during the week but have fun on the weekends with their friends and family. She had no respect for that; she had always put work first. Also, her most reliable associate was a woman who had just gotten married and was having a problem pregnancy that caused her to cut back her hours.

However, to have a well-run, supportive team, this partner needed her associates to want to work with her and for her. It was in her self-interest to make some alterations in the way she worked with her staff. She agreed with that assessment. I told her it was important for us to really understand where her anger was coming from.

We talked about some of her deeper needs and concerns. She was worried and anxious about losing her clients. Some of her clients were very demanding. To please them, she would try to get them answers to their questions as fast as possible so that they would see how responsive she was. That resulted in last minute assignments to her associates.

We talked about her annoyance with Millennials, who she thought put fun before work. She confessed that she wasn’t just annoyed, she was jealous of them. They had a life outside of work. She had put her work life front and center and why shouldn’t they do the same?

When it came to the associate with the problem pregnancy she confessed that she felt abandoned by this associate. She had not had children but there was a part of her that felt sad about that. To her credit she was able to talk about it with touching honesty.

She felt a lot of contradictory things: anger that she was being “abandoned” by the associates, jealousy because they had fuller lives than she did, pride that she was a better worker than they were, worry and fear that her clients would leave her if she did not respond to their needs immediately, and irritation about having been asked to behave differently, not to mention upset about having so many feelings roiling her psychologically.

It all bubbled over the day she threw the book. That day, she learned an associate would not be available to help her over the weekend, and the pregnant female associate asked to be reduced to part-time work status. The partner felt abandoned by her team. While not excusing what she did, it helped us to understand why she did it. It helped to solve the mystery.

We set some goals, and as we met over time, she worked to implement them. Some were very simple. I encouraged her to talk with her associates about how their contribution mattered. I encouraged her to thank her associates, especially if they worked over the weekend or late at night. When it came to those weekend assignments, I worked with her on a number of organizational strategies that allowed her to pace the work she gave to her team and avoid most of the late Friday afternoon assignments. We talked about how realistic or unrealistic it was to worry about losing her clients if they did not get a rapid response. And she agreed the concern was more of a worry and not a reality. We worked on a strategy to deal with her anxiety using a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention: identify the negative thought, challenge the negative thought, and replace the negative thought. And then we worked on a way to talk with her clients to reassure them if the response was a little less rapid.

When it came to the problem of feeling abandoned, that was more of a psychological issue that had deeper roots. If I had been her therapist, we would have explored that deeper psychological issue. As her coach I focused on helping her to have more of a social life on the weekend so that she too could enjoy a life outside of work and feel less jealous of her associates.

To her credit, this partner was willing to share some of her deeper feelings with me and was able to be open to suggestions in the interest of developing a more supportive team at work, which she was able to do.

Often the people at work who are upset and difficult to work with have deeper personal issues that are not known to others in the workplace.  Even if you do not know why someone is hard to work with, it can help to know that that person’s inner demons make their own lives harder, not just yours.

Trial by Error: Failure as a Powerful If Painful Teacher

How do we learn to do something right? Very often it is through trial by fire. We learn from our mistakes. And when we start a job, we often do make mistakes. It is not a great experience. In fact it can be pretty upsetting.

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I graduated from Temple Law School and started working as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the juvenile court system in Philadelphia in the late 1970s. The first day I came to work, nervous about what was going to happen, Harry Tischler, the division chief, welcomed me and then handed me a stack of about twenty files.

“The assistant who was going to try these cases today is out sick. Go down to Judge Brown’s courtroom and try these cases.”

Just because I had graduated from law school didn’t mean I had ever tried a case. I had not. And I had no idea what to do, no time to prepare the cases, and no time to talk with the witnesses. Nothing! When I said that I could use some ideas about how to try a case since I had never done it before, the chief said, “Ask the cops. They know what to do.” I almost bolted from the building, but instead I walked down to Judge Brown’s courtroom on the first floor, opened the door, and went in.

The courtroom was buzzing with activity. There were two court clerks behind the front bar of the court and a court stenographer. There were policemen in the waiting area who wanted to talk with me about the cases in which they were supposed to be testifying. There were defense attorneys, who once they figured out I was the prosecutor, wanted to talk about plea deals. There were witnesses were sitting on the benches outside the courtroom who wanted to know when their cases would be heard. I developed a giant headache.

Most of the cases had to be continued because a witness was missing, which was a relief. The court clerk set a new date and everyone involved in that case left the court. But there was one matter that was set for trial that day and all of the witnesses were there. The judge banged her gavel and declared that there would be a fifteen minute recess before the trial would begin.

“Are you ready, Counsel?” she demanded, peering down at me over her reading glasses from behind the elevated podium where she sat.

Gamely, I answered “Yes, Your Honor!”

That was a big fat lie. I wasn’t ready and I had no clue how to get ready in fifteen minutes to try the first criminal case I had ever tried in my life. I cornered the police officer who was going to testify in the case and tried to pick his brains.

“Look,” I said, “This is my first day on the job. Can you tell me what I need to do to try this case?”

He did his best to give me pointers. And then the judge was back and the gavel banged. Court was in session.

I did my best to put in the evidence. It was a case involving a high school teacher and a student. The teacher kept the student after school because he had been disrupting the classroom. She had him stay in her classroom in detention while she was writing on the blackboard. As she was writing, she was hit with a chair that was thrown at her by the student. She fell to the ground with a gash in the back of her head. She had to be rushed to the hospital. Her recovery took months.

This seemed like a straightforward assault and battery case, so I did what anyone would do who had watched TV shows about law and order. I called the teacher as my first witness, and I asked her questions. When I asked a leading question, the public defender objected and the judge instructed me to ask a different question. She even tried to suggest a question or two when I got stuck. I learned not to ask leading questions.

Things were going along pretty darn well until it came time to establish that the young man at the bar of the court was actually the person who had thrown the chair.

“Do you see the person who threw the chair at you here in court today?” I asked the teacher.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know?” I said.

“I don’t know. I had my back turned to the classroom while I was writing on the blackboard. All I know is that I blacked out and woke up in the hospital with a gash in my head.”

It was at that awful moment I learned it’s good to have corroborating evidence in a circumstantial case if you have an uncertain ID of the defendant. Too late. I did not have that corroborating evidence.

“How did you know you had been hit in the head with a chair?” I asked her.

“Because that’s what people told me at the hospital,” she said.

Of course that caused the public defender to jump to his feet yelling, “Objection! Hearsay!”

Which it was.

I will never forget the judge hissing at me, “Go to sidebar, counsel!” She was enraged. “You call yourself a lawyer? Where is your supervisor? I want a real lawyer in my courtroom! This is an important case and you do not know how to do a trial!” Of course she had a point there. I was mortified.

Harry Tishler was summoned by the judge. He came down to the courtroom and reviewed the file for a minute or two. We had a few moments together to talk. He explained how to manage the situation, and even though I offered to have him take over the trial, he refused. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just build the circumstantial evidence. Establish that there was no one else in the room other than the student at the time of the incident and that the chair was not fixed to the floor. Establish that this person at the bar of the court was her student and that he was the student she kept after school that day. Establish through the testimony of the police officer that when he arrived, he found her on the floor of the classroom with a gash in her head and found that the chair next to her had blood on it.” I did what he instructed. Harry stuck around until the trial was over and the judge ruled that based on the evidence, the defendant was guilty of a battery.

That day I learned a lot and I learned it the hard way.

When I do work histories now with the many clients I have seen over the years, I am surprised about how many people start out in a job and get thrown into a situation without the chance to learn what to do and what not to do. Of course they make mistakes. Many people have had the experience of trial by error. Those lessons probably stay with us the longest. Failure is a great teacher. I am not saying that is the best way to learn how to do a job, but it is a fairly common experience.

If you are having that experience right now at your job, just remember that you will get through it, and you have a lot of company!

How to Prevent Unconscious Bias from Derailing Your Career

I’d like to share a guest blog post with you today by Andie Kramer on a very important topic: women and the unconscious bias they face in the workplace, and what they can do about it. It is based on the new book Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris.


breaking through biasA major career move—advancing to a new position in your current organization, moving to a new one, or restarting your career after a break—can be difficult in the best of circumstances. But when the people controlling your ability to make such a move, that is your career gatekeepers, are biased against you, a major move can become impossible. Biases are of various sorts. Conscious biases—outspoken misogyny, racism, or anti-Semitism—are rare in today’s business environment. Unconscious or implicit biases, however, are anything but rare.

All of us on occasion use stereotypes in deciding what sort of person will be best at particular sorts of tasks. We might, for example, simply because of the stereotypes we have about particular sorts of people hire a man rather than a woman, promote a white person rather than a black person, or give a plum assignment to a young person rather than an older one. In doing so, we probably would not even be aware we were making biased, discriminatory decisions, or realize those decisions were directly contrary to our conscious, declared beliefs.

In what follows, we explain how stereotypes foster unconscious biases and how these biases limit career opportunities; we then offer some practical, effective techniques you can use to avoid or overcome the implicit biases you face in your career.

Stereotypes Foster Biases

We form stereotypes at a very young age. We ascribe to people who share a single characteristic—such as sex, race, ethnicity, or age—a host of other characteristics that can be positive—all Asians are good at math—or negative— all women are bad at math. But in either case, stereotypes are problematic because they strip a person of uniqueness. They ascribe characteristics to a person not because of actual behavior, accomplishments, and potential, but because of a social construct, an in-group/out-group prejudice, or a lazy way of deciding what a person is like. Stereotypes distort reality and create biases.

Stereotypes about Women

We commonly think that a woman—simply because she is a woman—is (and ought to be) warm, pleasant, caring, gentle, modest, sensitive, and affectionate (characteristics frequently called communal). On the other hand, we commonly think a man—simply because he is a man—is (and ought to be) strong, forceful, aggressive, competent, competitive, and independent (characteristics frequently called agentic).

A career gatekeeper who sees the world through these gender stereotypes will make decisions based on an unconscious expectation (at least at an initial meeting) that a woman will not be as forceful, competent, suited for challenging assignments, or capable of high-pressure, competitive leadership tasks as a comparably qualified man. Thus, traditional gender stereotypes foster a negative bias: a woman, simply because she is a woman, is not as capable of successful leadership as a man.

On the other hand, if a woman openly violates the traditional gender stereotypes by displaying agentic characteristics associated with (male) leadership, she is likely to be seen by her career gatekeepers as difficult, selfish, devious, and unlikable. By flaunting traditional gender stereotypes, a woman is subject to what we call an agentic bias.

Because women face a negative bias if they conform to traditional gender stereotypes and an agentic bias if they violate them, women often feel they are in a no-win situation, unable to advance regardless of what they do. As a result, they can become frustrated with their careers, cynical about their advancement opportunities, and unwilling to continue to make the effort needed to get ahead.

The pervasive nature of such frustration is well illustrated by a recent survey by Bain and Company. Bain found that when women start their careers at large organizations, they are just as ambitious as men. But after about two years, the percentage of women aiming for a top position has dropped by about 60%, while the percentage of men with similarly high ambitions has remained the same. Contrary to conventional wisdom, marital status and parental responsibilities are not significant predictors of whether a woman will aspire to a top management position. Most discouraging, 70% of female middle managers and 75% of female senior managers believe women do not have an opportunity to advance in their organizations on terms comparable to men.

The Bain survey makes clear that after being in the workplace for several years, something happens that saps women’s ambition and undermines their belief in their ability to achieve meaningful career success. That something, in our view, is unquestionably gender bias. Women’s ideas are disregarded, they are excluded from networking and skill-building opportunities, and they experience discriminatory decisions about who is assigned to important projects, who receives valuable sponsorship, who gets listened to, and who is promoted.

Before we discuss what women can do to avoid or overcome this sort of gender discrimination, we want to look briefly at how gender stereotypes can also negatively affect men’s careers.

Stereotypes about Men

When men refuse to conform to traditional male stereotypes they too face gender bias. A man will inevitably be criticized about his lack of commitment to his career if he assumes primary responsibility for his children, demands a flexible work schedule, or refuses to accept assignments that take him away from his family. Thus, a man who, for whatever reason, rejects the demand for constant “face time” and refuses to be available 24/7 faces negative career and social costs because of the gender bias against “unmanly men.”

Changing the World

Obviously, our workplaces should be more gender neutral. Women who want robust careers should be supported, not attacked, and men who want to assume more domestic responsibilities should be respected, not depreciated. But achievement of such a blessed state of affairs will require enormous changes in workplace culture and social attitudes—changes we do not expect to see any time soon. This means that the real question is not whether our workplaces should change—of course, they should—but what women and men can do now to avoid or overcome pervasive discriminatory gender biases.

Women and Gender Bias

Women often suffer career penalties if their career gatekeepers see them as communal—thus not capable of leadership—or as agentic—thus unpleasant and unlikable. We call this double bind the Goldilocks Dilemma: a woman is “too soft” if she is seen as communal and “too hard” if she is seen as agentic. The trick for a woman, therefore, is to be seen as “just right,” and this depends on her ability to combine both agentic and communal behaviors in the right proportions at the right times. We call such purposeful mixing of “hard” and “soft” behaviors “attuned gender communication.”

A recent study tracked a group of female and male MBA graduates over the first eight years of their careers. It illustrates the effectiveness of attuned gender communication. Those women who were purposefully able to dial up or dial down their communal and agentic characteristics as they thought necessary were more successful than everyone else. They received 1.5 times as many promotions as agentic men, 1.5 times as many promotions as communal women, 2 times as many promotions as communal men, and 3 times as many promotions as agentic women. By using attuned gender communication, women can finesse rather than reinforce other people’s gender stereotypes to avoid gender bias.

For a successful career, a woman must be able to present her ideas forcefully, lead with decisiveness, and stand her ground when criticized. But unless she can mix this sort of agentic behavior with communal characteristics that convey her openness to other people’s ideas, her inclusiveness and relatability, and her social sensitivity, she is likely to be penalized, not rewarded. A woman should never be hesitant to speak up, assert her point of view, or take charge, but when she does, she needs to project personal engagement with her audience, a genuine concern for the welfare of her organization and the people in it, and a keen sense of fair play. In other words, unlike a comparably situated man, a woman needs to pair behavior that shows her competence, confidence, and a competitive appetite with behavior that projects warmth, inclusiveness, and likability.

Men and Gender Bias

A man who wants to play a meaningful role in the life of his family must decide if he also wants a demanding career. If he doesn’t, then the consequences of the bias against “unmanly men” are essentially irrelevant. But if he wants a robust career, he must find a way to overcome this bias, and this will require him to do at least two things.

First, he must take concrete steps that will allow him to have a full domestic life while pursuing career advancement. He will need to negotiate firm arrival and departure times, a flexible work schedule, or an opportunity to work from home. Such arrangements can be difficult, but not impossible, to obtain. And they are likely to come with costs: less rapid advancement opportunities, lower financial rewards, and fewer challenging projects than he might otherwise be qualified for. But if he truly owns his choice to equally value career and family, he will be able to live with the consequences if that choice with grace and good humor.

Second, consistent with the demands of his domestic responsibilities, he must maximize the visibility of his career commitment. This means he must devote much of his time when he is not with his family to his career. In other words, if it is not a family matter, he should be involved with his career, and if it is not a career matter, he should be involved with his family. To do this, he will need to forego many other aspirations—an active social life, non-business travel, training for a marathon, civic engagement, university extension courses, a book project, and much else. To achieve career success and real domestic engagement, a man must make clear that he is fully committed to both. Women with children and careers have been doing this for quite some time, and if a woman can do it, a man ought to be able to do so too.

Other Biases

Our discussion has focused for the most part on gender bias. But other implicit biases—race, ethnicity, age, religion, education, ancestry, or whatever—can also derail a career. The techniques that are most effective in avoiding or overcoming these biases may vary slightly, but they should all be approached in basically the same way: become aware of the stereotypes that are driving the bias, identify your behaviors that play into and obviate the consequences of this bias, and learn to manage the impressions you make so you confound or overcome these stereotypes rather than feed them.